Religious martyrdom is an odd thing. If someone is killed because of that person’s race or ethnicity or sexuality, that death is deplored but people who share the victim’s targeted identity do not see the death as a vindication or a badge of honor of that identity. On the other hand, religions seem to revel in their martyrs, as if having someone die or be killed for their belief somehow makes that belief more worthy.
When it comes to Christian martyrs, the figure that is sometimes bandied around is about 100,000 a year. That is a lot, if you think of martyrs as people who have been killed because of their religious beliefs. But where did that figure come from? The number seems to have originated with the estimate of one million Christians killed between 2000 and 2010.
But commenter Pierce R. Butler sends along this story that says that the actual numbers are much less than that and that the inflated figure is due to Christians dying because of conflicts occurring in Christian countries, like the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the genocide in Rwanda, not because they were targeted for being Christian.
Once one accounts for that, the actual number is estimated to be 7-8,000 actual Christians killed per year, which is still a lot. The number also depends on how one defines a martyr. Judd Birdsall says it is not easy coming up with a good definition and the word gets assigned a little too freely, like ‘heroes’.
Calling millions of Christian victims of bloody civil wars “martyrs” is a bit like calling all the victims of 9/11 “heroes.” To be sure, many exhibited remarkable heroism. But most 9/11 victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The same goes for most Christians who lose their lives prematurely as a result of human hostility. They are often caught up in conflicts sparked by a complex web of ethnic, economic, political, ideological and other factors. Singling out the religious factor — let alone identifying religious martyrs — is incredibly complicated.
I would argue for an understanding of martyrdom that is honest and modest. Honest about the messy complexity of human violence and modest about the ability to quantify with any precision the number of people violently killed for their faith. The number of clear-cut martyrdoms each year is actually quite low, and they often make international news.
Dying for one’s religion seems like a waste of a human life. But it is interesting to think about what abstract causes are worth dying for.